Left, right, left, right, left, right.
Nayeon kept this simple command in mind as she walked forward, even though her boots were starting to feel like concrete around her feet, and the pulsing ache under her skin that never really went away was beginning to throb. It was too much effort to continually dab at the sweat pooling on her skin, trickling down her temples and down her collar in an icky manner, so she put her energy to better use. One hand was tight around the handle of the shotgun slung across her shoulder, and the other had a firm grip on her messenger bag. Her shoulders started smarting miles back, and she finally took Mina’s advice to just carry it, giving her back a break.
The scenery was all the same: sunlight that felt harsher than it really was beaming down from the thin white clouds, nothing but the crunch of gravel under her shoes to fill the silence as Nayeon ducked under the crumbling door frame of the current looting site.
That’s what all the buildings had turned into, the residences that used to be full of people and life, and hopes and futures. Just dry skeletons now, a shell of their former selves. Nayeon swallowed as she examined the disarrayed parking garage, the thick and overgrown greenery snaking across the walls and across the floor. The cars here mostly had busted glass, blown out tires, and half of them were missing doors, but maybe there was something here. Enough to help them move, just for a little while.
She was so sick of having to run, absolutely exhausted of constantly looking over her shoulder and worrying about whether they’d finally catch up, whether they’d find them. It would be at the most inopportune time, the one second Nayeon let her guard down, and, well, she couldn’t let that happen. It didn’t matter so much to her, but if anything happened to Mina...
Nayeon paused in her wandering, eyeing a rusted red truck that looked promising on the outside. She hummed thoughtfully as she rested the shotgun next to the passenger door, coming around the front to open the hood and take a look underneath.
Nayeon peered at the engine as footsteps grew closer to her, and a dash of hope flickered within her as arms wrapped around her waist, a cheek pressing against her shoulder blade.
“Mina, I’m covered in filth from the last town, you don’t want to touch me.”
“Don’t care.” Mina replied, squeezing tighter as Nayeon smiled in satisfaction. This one might be their golden ticket. Finally. Her feet hurt so fucking much.
“I think if we check the other cars for leftover gas, we can jump start this one. I’ll have to push...” Nayeon trailed off at the thought, her muscles already aching and closing her eyes briefly in despair before shutting the hood.
“Sounds like a plan.” Mina’s voice was brisk, but cheerful, and Nayeon wished she had her confidence. She turned around slowly, a little pulse of affection going through her as she took in Mina’s appearance. She was sweaty and dusty just as much as Nayeon, but Mina’d tied a strip from her beaten up shirt around her head to keep the sweat out of her eyes, and her jacket was wound tightly around her waist, giving her a rugged mechanic kind of look that Nayeon was definitely into.
Nayeon blinked, aware she’d been staring but not at all ashamed of it. “What?”
“You were looking at me in that way you do when you think I’m being hot. And I look so gross right now, so that can’t be true.” Mina pointed an accusing finger at her before scooping up the gas can she’d set by her feet, preparing to raid the other cars.
“Come here.” Nayeon said quietly, reaching out to grasp at Mina’s wrist. Mina looked at her curiously as Nayeon pulled her closer, and hummed softly when Nayeon kissed her.
Sometimes Nayeon thought the only trace of sweetness left in the world was in the way Mina tasted.
“That was nice.” Mina said slowly when Nayeon drew back, tilting her head slightly. “Are you okay?”
Nayeon looked at her for a moment, chest tightening as she studied Mina’s face. Her overly tanned skin and hardened muscles, the tension in the lines of her expression that never smoothed out completely, even in sleep, the softness and curiosity in her eyes, one of the only parts of her that was exactly the same as it had been before the world burned down around them.
Nayeon took a deep breath, stepping away from the red truck and walking over to the nearest car, flipping the gas lid open and gesturing for Mina to bring the can over. “Just thinking.”
“About what?” Mina asked, leaning against the car and watching Nayeon concernedly. Nayeon didn’t look at her, coaxing the little bit of gas left into the can as she took another deep breath.
It was hard, especially at night, when Mina was passed out from the sheer exertion of their traveling- Nayeon called it escaping, but Mina didn’t like for her to say that anymore- and Nayeon was awake by herself. She spent most of the time staring into nothing, despite the usual flames that she’d need to douse before she curled up next to Mina, but everything Nayeon visualized was in her head. The looks on the faces of her family, of Jihyo and Tzuyu and Dahyun, that very first night, when none of them had any idea what was about to rip their lives apart.
“You remember the first night they arrived?” Nayeon finally said, her voice quiet and rough as she slammed the gas cap closed to move onto the next car.
“We didn’t know a damn thing.” Nayeon muttered. Her fingers tensed around the handle as visions began to swarm through her mind, the horrible thump on the roof that night, and the puzzled expressions on everyone’s faces, the dawning horror as the first ominous scratch scraped against the walls.
“We had no idea what we were in for. And...”
She trailed off, but Mina was there to catch the end of the thought, just like she always was.
“You’ve been thinking about your family. And the others.” Mina finished softly.
Nayeon didn’t answer, but the harshness of the way she jammed the gas can into the car was sufficient enough.
Mina came up behind her again, chin resting on Nayeon’s shoulder as her fingers shook. Nayeon wasn’t sure why these moments randomly ascended on her, tearing at her walls and seeking out all the little chinks in her armor at the worst possible time. This was not the moment to remember the way Tzuyu looked at her that night, when all the lights went out and nobody responded when Nayeon shouted into the darkness, and the trust that had been in all of their voices when Nayeon told them to stay there.
Nayeon was surprised to feel something wet running across the back of her hand, and when she looked down, she caught the faint trail of tears there before Mina’s fingers were curling over hers, one hand slipping the gas can away to rest it on the ground. Then Mina was gently turning Nayeon to face her, hands coming up to take Nayeon’s face and wipe her thumbs under Nayeon’s eyes.
“Sorry.” Nayeon mumbled, wanting to curse herself for showing yet another moment of weakness in front of Mina. Mina, her love. Her beacon, one of two reasons she kept the motions up. Mina, who’d lost her entire family that night and, after a straight week of uncontrollable sobbing in Nayeon’s arms, had never shed another tear. At least not that Nayeon could see. Her strength was unparalleled.
“It’s okay. It’s okay for you to miss them.” Mina leaned forward to lay a soft, cool kiss on Nayeon’s trembling mouth, from which something soothing ran into Nayeon and touched the core of tension residing in the bottom of her stomach.
Nayeon reached up to brush her thumb over Mina’s warmed cheek. “It’s okay for you to miss Jeongyeon and Sana, you know.”
Mina stiffened instantly, just like Nayeon knew she would, and she frowned a little when Mina drew away.
“I don’t need to miss them. They’re not dead.”
“Baby, it’s been ages. At least two years...”
Mina shook her head vigorously. “They’re not dead.” she repeated, picking up the gas can again and wheeling around to find another car. “They’re not dead, and when we find them, you’ll understand why I’m so eager for you to meet them. They’re some of the greatest people ever. You’ll love them, Nayeonnie.”
Nayeon didn’t say anything, taking Mina’s place against the second car as she watched Mina bustle around the vehicles. Mina was sweet and wonderful and almost always the only reason that Nayeon continued with left, right, left, right, left, right, but she was stubborn to a fault about her friends. They’d been traveling for years together now, over dried out ghost towns and overgrown forests and through tunnels faded from flooding, and as far as Nayeon could tell, they were two of the only souls left on this planet. Maybe the others were all underground, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t track them down, but Nayeon saw no logic in that plan. The best bet was to keep moving.
“I’m sorry if I implied otherwise.” Nayeon said, walking over to where Mina was knelt under the body of a black van. “I didn’t mean to.”
Mina straightened up, holding out an ammo box, which Nayeon flipped open to reveal a few shotgun shells. “It’s okay.”
Nayeon kissed her on the forehead and slipped the ammo into her belt. “Do we have enough gas now?”
Mina held up the can and swished it around. “There’s almost no empty spaces, so I think this is as good as it’s gonna get. Unless you want to search the upper floors.”
Nayeon hesitated, glancing at the beams of sunlight starting to fade from brilliant yellow-white to scarlet, and shook her head. It was tempting, so tempting, to raid the upper floors, possibly find some more ammo and maybe a few weapons, but they knew the rules by now. The nasty things came out in the dark. There was a rhythm to how this all worked now, and Nayeon wasn’t going to risk Mina’s safety for some extra bullets.
“Nah, we need to get going so we can make it into the next town before the sun goes down.” Nayeon wrapped an arm around Mina’s shoulders and squeezed her closer, pushing away all her doubts for a moment as she breathed in Mina’s scent. No amount of sun or sweat seemed to entirely wash away Mina’s natural scent, which Nayeon was eternally grateful for. It was a link to their past, a reminder that the world hadn’t always been this shit.
“I’ll drive then.” Mina kissed her on the cheek before bounding over to the truck, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel as Nayeon lugged the gas can to the side. Her intuition flickered as she topped off the gas, closing the cap cautiously and looking around.
The hair prickled on the back of her neck. Something was off.
“What?” Mina questioned, looking at Nayeon through the permanently rolled down window on the passenger’s side.
Their eyes only had to meet for a second before Mina’s expression changed, understanding instantly.
“I don’t know.” Nayeon cut her off, jogging around to the back of the truck. “But I don’t want to find out. Put the truck in neutral so we don’t have to.”
When Mina obliged, Nayeon began to push, squeezing her eyes shut at the effort and flinching at the sound that thrummed through her head. The low, ominous call, that more resembled a roar than a growl, simultaneously high pitched and terribly dark. Fear pulsed in her heart.
“Mina, they’re coming!”
“Shit, shit, shit. I can’t shoot and drive at the same time!” Mina shouted back. The truck was starting to pick up speed, but Nayeon could feel something shift behind her, their presence growing clearer by the moment. If she paused, if she looked back for even a moment, that could be the second that meant the difference between Mina’s life and death, and that was the last thing that Nayeon would ever let happen.
Adrenaline replaced the fear as Nayeon put all her strength in her motions, refusing to even spare a glance as all the hair on her arms stood straight up.
“Nayeon? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine! Just concentrate on steering!” Nayeon yelled.
The faintest whoosh resonated, like the brush of a wing against the air, and the blood in Nayeon’s veins turned to ice.
You can kill me, maim me, torture me all you want, but I’ll never let you touch her.
The truck successfully groaned out of the parking garage, and Nayeon sprinted after it, swinging herself into the cab and refusing to look back as Mina glanced in the rearview window.
“Fine.” Nayeon interrupted, crawling awkwardly through the gaping hole where the back windshield used to be to plop in beside Mina. “You?”
“I wish I’d been able to see any of them, just to see their fucking faces and....” Mina trailed off.
Tzuyu’s voice was frightened, drifting down the hall, and Nayeon wanted to reassure her, but she had to see what was back here first, to make sure they were going to be okay. Besides, Tzuyu had Jihyo and Dahyun with her.
Nayeon frowned, lifting her flashlight up to sweep across the floor, and listened hard for any sounds of intrusion, anything at all. It was eerily quiet, but that meant nothing. If anything, it put her on higher alert. But she needed to make this quick, to get back to the others.
Quietly, she pushed open the last door at the end of the hall, feeling her pulse quicken as she stepped inside cautiously. Nayeon still couldn’t hear anything besides her own heavy breathing, and the darkness seemed to be closing in around her, even with the beam of her flashlight, pressing in on her chest and making it harder just to breathe, to inhale and exhale-
The beam streaked across the window over Nayeon’s bed, and her eyes widened.
Her fingers slackened from around the plastic, the flashlight plunging to the floor, but it was too late.
Mina’s fingers were snapping in front of her face, and Nayeon crashed back into reality, focusing on the anxiety in Mina’s voice and the concerned look in her eyes.
“Hey, where’d you go? I lost you for a moment there.” Mina said softly. Nayeon reached over for her free hand, sliding her fingers in between Mina’s and squeezing tightly, the warmth of Mina’s palm a welcoming reassurance.
“I just was thinking a little too hard. Don’t worry. I came back.”
Mina lifted Nayeon’s hand up, pressing a soft kiss to her knuckles before resting their hands on her lap, keeping her eyes on the road.
“As long as you always come back.”
“You’re getting sleepy.”
Mina stifled a massive yawn, pressing her face against Nayeon’s shoulder and grumbling under her breath as Nayeon laughed. It wasn’t often that she found a reason to laugh anymore, but Mina always seemed to be able to get her to. She was the best at everything, really.
“You can’t even keep your eyes open to say that.” Nayeon shifted so Mina could lay down in her lap, only a few feet from the dying fire in front of them, and began to stroke Mina’s hair as Mina continued muttering incoherently.
“I’m just resting my eyes. Leave me alone.”
“Okay.” Nayeon leaned down to kiss Mina’s temple before allowing her to get comfortable again, watching the flames grow closer and closer to the logs they were burning themselves out on. They’d managed to make it into the next town, partly on sheer force of will, and found a little secluded spot to set up camp in, but Nayeon knew she still wouldn’t be getting much rest tonight. Too much to think about, and plan for tomorrow.
“Nayeon?” Mina mumbled, her hand tightening around Nayeon’s left one.
“Yeah, baby?” Nayeon answered.
“I can hear you thinking. You need sleep too.”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Nayeon muttered. Mina wasn’t really supposed to hear that, and it didn’t surprise her when Mina punched her leg, although it definitely hurt.
“You’re not dying, Im Nayeon. Not any time soon. Not under my watch. But you’ll be close to dead if you keep insisting on wearing yourself out like this.”
Nayeon’s heart softened, the absolute love and warmth she had surrounding Mina enveloping her, but the cold harshness of reality was still lingering there, watching, waiting. Just like them.
“Someone has to stay up.” Nayeon eventually said, tightening her arms around Mina.
“Nayeonnie, you can’t stay up forever. We made good progress today, okay?”
“Hey.” Mina sat up slowly, eyelids still half drooping but conviction clear in her gaze. “Look at me.”
Nayeon met her eyes.
“I love you.” Mina kissed her, taking Nayeon’s chin in her hand and the brush of their lips a gentle reminder as much as it was a destresser. “And I absolutely love that you’d take on the entire world if I needed you to. But I don’t need you to. Not tonight. What I need is for you to breathe, just for once, and sleep with me in the backseat.”
Nayeon arched an eyebrow.
“I mean sleep, you gutter rat.” Mina swatted at her shoulder. “You know, actually cuddle me, and relax? Just for once?”
Nayeon couldn’t look into those pleading eyes and refuse them anything.
Mina always could make her weak in ways no one else could.
“Okay.” Nayeon muttered, gesturing for Mina to get up. “You go lay down and get situated. I just need to take care of the stuff out here.”
Mina beamed, dissipating the stress coiled in Nayeon’s chest, and kissed her again before obeying.
Nayeon stood up slowly, gathering up handfuls of soil to toss onto the fire until the embers were smothering themselves out, and looked down at her gun.
Her fingers trembled as she ran them over the grip, the blood pounding in her head, in her heart incessantly, pressing down on Nayeon’s mind and making it impossible to focus on anything else. Would life always be this way? With all of the fear, and the questioning, and the running?
No, Nayeon thought, gaze drifting to the backseat, where she could just make out Mina’s motionless form, picturing the cute little way she curled up when she passed out. No, because there’s her.
Nayeon slipped the gun into her holster, taking a deep breath and pressing her fingers to her temples.
“Fuck.” Nayeon whispered, feeling that familiar and unwelcome sensation tugging under her skin. The linger, the reminder that something was within her now, something not of her kind, not of this species.
There was a hint of a call in her voice as Nayeon exhaled heavily.
Not tonight. Please.
Nayeon’s nails dug into her palms so hard it ached, and she clenched her jaw, focusing on the ache in her bones, behind her eyeballs, trickling down her spine, and lingered on those points of pain, of otherness.
Each time, Mina’s face flickered across her mind, and it calmed her. Suppressed it.
Nayeon allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction before walking over to the truck, unclipping her gun belt and holster and laying it on the driver’s seat. She pulled the back door open and looked down at Mina for a moment, heart swelling to the point of fear that it might burst.
Maybe they’d be on the run forever, escaping both the outside forces and this, this thing that lurked in Nayeon now. Maybe they’d never find their friends again, or maybe they would. The future was impossible to track.
“I love you, Minari.” Nayeon whispered, brushing the hair back behind Mina’s ear and leaning down to kiss her cheek. Mina murmured a little in her sleep, but didn’t wake.
Nayeon shifted her carefully, adjusting their positions so Nayeon was propped behind her, holding Mina securely against her chest and finally feeling relaxed enough to close her eyes, especially when Mina turned, her face burying against Nayeon’s neck.
You can infect me, destroy me, bring me down from the inside, Nayeon thought, running her fingers absently over Mina’s arm as she rested her cheek against the top of Mina’s head.
But I’ll never let you have her.